By: Andrea Yoder
|A frosty January sunrise over the farm|
|A hillside forest provides the backdrop |
for fields of sunchokes in bloom
“Before Simard and other ecologists revealed the extent and significance of mycorrhizal networks, foresters typically regarded trees as solitary individuals that competed for space and resources and were otherwise indifferent to one another. Simard and her peers have demonstrated that this framework is far too simplistic. An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society. There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness. The trees, understory plants, fungi and microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected, communicative and codependent that some scientists have described them as superorganisms.”
|Laetiporus Sulphureus Mushrooms |
growing on a log amongst other understory plants
Simrad, along with her colleagues and other foresters, have found that individual trees are connected within a forest through this mycorrhizal system that intertwines itself on the roots of trees and plants. This is a symbiotic relationship where the mycorrhizae feed on the sugars produced in the process of photosynthesis by the trees. In exchange, the mycorrhizae have the ability to scavenge nutrients and transfer them to the tree roots while also forming an intricate system to connect trees and plants in an area. They have found that this underground fungal system allows trees to “communicate” with each other. Now, tree “talk” is not the same as human communication, so you have to look at tree talk from the perspective of a tree. Trees communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals—in a sense they speak a language all their own which means we as humans have to try to interpret what they are “saying” and most of the time we don’t even realize what’s happening. They communicate through their root system which is directly tapped into the mycorrhizae, but also in the air using pheromones and other scent signals.
|Trees line the river winding through our valley|
When the vast mycorrhizal system is present, trees are able to translocate nutrients and water from one tree to others all across the forest. Remember, trees cannot get up and walk to the river to get a drink and trees in a forest usually don’t have a human built irrigation system to move water to their roots. So, they have essentially built their own irrigation system! They also send nutrients through these channels, releasing nutrients to move to other trees in need, and receiving nutrients when they need them. In this way, the forest, with all its trees and plants, becomes a community which takes care of the different members. Simrad has also observed the value of “Mother Trees” in a forest. These are mature trees that seem to nurture and care for young trees, imparting not only nutrients and water to help them thrive, but also tree wisdom. Trees communicate through pheromones and chemicals to warn other trees of danger, insects, disease, drought, etc which allows the trees to then mount their own defenses to help them withstand whatever may threaten their survival.
|A "birds-eye" view of Harmony Valley Farm|
But why should we care about trees or how they communicate? Why does any of this even matter to us? In an interview Simrad did with Yale Environment 360, she was quoted as saying, “A forest is a cooperative system. To me using the language of ‘communication’ made more sense because we were looking at not just resource transfers, but things like defense signaling and kin recognition signaling. We as human beings can relate to this better. If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more. If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.” Simply put, we need trees and forests. They are an important part of our ecosystem and help us in many ways. They help us combat climate change by capturing carbon and storing it in the soil. They are a part of the amazing way Mother Nature purifies our air and water. When we destroy forests, we take more than just the tree itself. We destroy an entire organism that is an important part of our ecosystem.
|Frosty winter trails|
Whether you choose to explore this topic more on your own or not, at the very least I encourage you to spend a little time this winter exploring the winter landscape around you. Get outside and walk in nature. Notice the trees around you and enjoy their presence. Garner a newfound respect for them and be part of their community. After all, we as humans have the choice to be their advocate, allies and protectors, or their opposition.
Jabr, Ferris. “The Social Life of Forests.” New York Times, www.nytimes.com. Accessed 6 December 2020.
Simrad, Suzanne. Finding The Mother Tree. Penguin Random House, 2021 May.
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World. Greystone Books, 2016 September.